CAIRO — Their number fluctuates, but their message never does. It’s as brick-solid as the walls they walk by, as sturdy as the bars they pass on the way to the cell pod in the back of the Grady County Detention Center each week the day after Sunday church services.
Eleven years ago Lindsey Allen, wife of Cairo First Baptist Church‘s then-pastor Joe Allen, asked if she could leave papers for inmates to leave prayer requests that would be taken to her church. At first she was told it was only going to lead to “jail house religion, but eventually was given the okay to do so. Those papers scribbled with hopes and guilt would be collected, taken to the church, prayed over, then on Tuesday taken to another prayer group before being destroyed.
Soon thereafter the Detention Center began to allow a group of ladies from the church to host a Bible study on Mondays. Allen, a schoolteacher, wasn’t able to make it but church member Joyce Herndon credits her for getting the process started.
“Lindsey was instrumental,” says Herndon, a part of that original group that has since come to include ladies from other churches in Grady County Baptist Association as well as local churches in other denominations. “We’d discovered there was no ministry for women there and had tried to establish one, but couldn’t. Since then we’ve gone every Monday except for one when Christmas fell on a Sunday.”
Although women make up only 9 percent of the prison population in Georgia, it’s the fastest growing segment with a recidivism rate of 19 percent, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections. In addition, children of female offenders are seven times more likely to become incarcerated than those of non-incarcerated females.
Seeing the cycle
Like Lindsey Allen, Herndon was a schoolteacher. A couple of other members of the jail ministry group were, too.
Herndon remembers the faces being so much younger and innocent in her kindergarten and first grade classes. Seeing them again, under these conditions, brings an instant connection but often an intense sense of shame for the inmate.
“They’re embarrassed when they see a former teacher,” she admits. “They get better when they realize we’re here to love them, then they ‘come back’ to us and we have a bond.
“There’s one I taught in the first grade who is a repeat offender. When I see her she’ll start crying and say ‘Mrs. Joyce I didn’t mean for this to happen.’ She doesn’t mean to fall back into her old ways. I think she really means it, but then when she gets out goes back to the same people in the same environment and pretty soon she’s back.
“So many of the women have no place to go [on being released] The guy she was with before is offering open arms to take her back in. They resist, but then go.”
Herndon, like others, has personal reasons for involvement. Drug abuse has become an issue for every community no matter its makeup, and can infiltrate any family no matter its background. A family member of hers has struggled with addiction for years and gone through several treatment programs, currently in one today.
“It’s easier to fall into that lifestyle than us on the outside think,” she warns.
That said, the pathway to crime often includes a long history of sexual and/or physical abuse, says the GDC, through unhealthy relationships and substance abuse. Drugs are involved in 75 percent of female convictions.
The ministry is operated strictly on donations, with those donations going toward the purchase of Bibles, states Herndon. Financial support has come from various churches, men’s ministries, WMU groups, Sunday School classes, a United Methodist church, and the Men’s Brotherhood group of Grady County Baptist Association.
The level of biblical illiteracy, especially for a small-town in the Bible belt, can be astounding, asserts Herndon in recalling an instance when one participant in the Bible study didn’t know where to locate Genesis.
But positive stories also come out of the 12-20 inmates who participate.
“One time there was a woman lying on a mattress in the floor of the cell,” Herndon recalls. “I asked if she’d like to come to church. She told me she was a Muslim, so I said okay and walked away a few steps, but then I went back and asked here again. This time she said yes and when asked later if she wanted a Bible, said yes again.”
The next week the woman was gone. Herndon doesn’t know what became of her.
Another time, there was an inmate originally from the Northeast who had stolen a car in Georgia before getting caught in Florida. “She’d stand nearby during our meetings and make noises to be disruptive,” Herndon says. “We kept inviting her even though she said she didn’t believe in God.”
Another inmate who had been participating in the Bible study began to reach out to the one claiming to be an atheist. Eventually she, too, became involved. Upon being released, Herndon has been told, the young lady had been taken in by a family – not related to her – in a nearby town and was involved in church.
“I want these women to know God created them altogether lovely,” Herndon emphasizes. “Regardless of what has happened in their life, the Lord offers salvation and a better way to live through Jesus Christ.
“That builds their self-esteem and gives them a greater purpose for their lives. In many cases the seed is sown and they receive Jesus as their savior. We’ve seen that happen twice in the last month. We want them to know Jesus loves them unconditionally.”
A solid message, she hopes, upon which they begin to rebuild.